New Year in Bangkok

Happy 2547! Well…2547 B.E. (Buddhist Era), that is. If you traveled to Thailand this year, that’s what you’d see on the signs during the first four months of the year. The people of Thailand love celebrating the New Year so much that they do it three times every year. They celebrate the (modern/Western/solar) New Year on January 1, then the Chinese New Year according to the lunar calendar a few weeks later (January 22 this year), and then they have the traditional Thai New Year celebration, called Songkran, from April 13-15. The celebration for Songkran has evolved from a reserved, ceremonial “washing” of the Buddha images all over the country into a water fight free-for-all.

The weather in January in Thailand is almost always warm and pleasant, with temperatures in the 80s. I spent a couple of very happy New Year’s vacations there in the early ‘90s while I was teaching English in Japan. The Thai people were amazingly friendly – it’s not known as “The Land of Smile” for nothing. The scenery – the beaches, mountains, rice paddies – it was all amazing. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a full manicure, a full pedicure, and a one-hour Thai massage on Christmas Day without ever leaving the beach. Talk about your holidays being warm and bright! Oh, yeah – the food was wonderful!

Since our January is usually cold and blustery, I thought some nice spicy Thai dishes would warm you up from the inside out. In case you get too warm, the cucumber salad can help cool you off. Serve these dishes with a steamy pot of jasmine rice. It is the favorite rice in Thailand, and once you’ve smelled it, you’ll understand why. Cook it just like you would cook any long-grained rice.

One note – while I was in Thailand, I wasn’t a full-fledged vegetarian yet. I was still eating fish and seafood. The only difficulty for vegetarians in Thailand is that almost all of the traditional dishes contain nam pla (fish sauce) or tiny dried shrimp. Here I’ve given you several dishes that have been veganized, but still have all of their traditional flavor. The Buddhism practiced by most Thai folks doesn’t require vegetarianism, so it’s a concept that is poorly understood there.

Some of the ingredients listed might or might not be available in the Sevananda produce section. I’m not sure if a certified organic source of kafir lime leaves, Thai basil, or galanga root exists. If you can’t find these easily, they are usually available at the Dekalb (International) Farmer’s Market on East Ponce de Leon in Decatur.

A brief glossary of Thai ingredients:

· Coconut milk – Thai Kitchen makes a nice version with no preservatives. “Lite” coconut milk is just watered down regular coconut milk, so if you want to cut down on the fat in a recipe, just use less coconut milk and add water. Add a little coconut extract to bump up the flavor.
· Curry paste – Not curry powder. In Thai cooking, curry paste is a blend of ginger, peppers, lemongrass, and other ingredients. The main types of Thai curry paste are red, green, yellow, Panang, and Massaman. Imported Thai curry pastes often contain fish sauce or shrimp paste, so read your labels. Thai Kitchen makes very good vegetarian ones.
· Galanga root – Thai ginger. It is more pungent than other gingers, and more fibrous. Peel carefully and grate finely or leave it in large enough slices to remove easily. Use fresh ginger root if you can’t find galanga. Cut the root into useable slices and freeze for later use.
· Kafir (kaffir, kefir) lime leaves – bright, green, shiny leaves with a strong lime fragrance. Substitute a few drops of lime oil if you can’t find them, but they’re worth hunting for. Freeze any extras in freezer bags to use later.
· Lemongrass – a tough, fibrous plant with a wonderful lemony fragrance. Look for stalks with fat white bases. Note: if you want to grow your own lemongrass (very easy!), wait until late winter, buy some stalks with their bottom ends intact, root them in a glass of water for a few weeks, then plant them in a sunny place after our last frost. You’ll end up with an attractive 4-foot tall grassy plant. Cut them as needed. Harvest the stalks before the first frost.
· Rice stick – rice noodles that can vary in size from super-thin to wide and flat. They are made of rice flour (and possibly some preservatives – check your labels). The best ones for Pad Thai are about the width of linguine or fettucine. They cook quickly and have a delicious chewy texture. Thai Kitchen makes a preservative-free version.
· Thai basil leaves (Holy Basil) – smaller than Sweet Basil, and a bit more assertive. Substitute fresh sweet basil leaves if you can’t find these.
· Thai red chilies – otherwise known as “bird” chilies, these are very small and very hot.

Lemongrass Coconut Milk Soup (Tom Kah)
Fragrant and addictive – guaranteed to warm you up!
Recipe adapted from Sascha Weiss, Nosh magazine
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

2 tablespoons canola oil (or safflower)
3 red Thai chilies or serrano chilies
4 shallots (or one medium yellow onion), diced
5 slices galanga (or ginger root)
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 4-inch lengths
1 cup oyster mushrooms or creminis, sliced
1/2 cup firm tofu diced into 1/2″ cubes
1 14 oz can coconut milk
3 cups rice milk (or water or light vegetable broth)
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
5 kafir lime leaves
1 large tomato, cut into wedges
2 tablespoons brown rice syrup or sugar (optional – to taste)
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
juice of 2 limes (or to taste)
salt and pepper

1. Using a 4-quart or larger pot, heat the oil, then saute the chilies, shallots, galanga, lemongrass pieces, mushrooms, and tofu. Stir and cook until the shallots just start to soften.
2. Add the coconut milk, rice milk, tamari, and kafir lime leaves. Bring the mixture to a simmer and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Add the tomato, brown rice syrup, cilantro, and lime juice.
4. Remove kafir lime leaves, lemongrass pieces, and galanga slices, as they are too fibrous to eat.
5. Ladle soup into bowls, season as desired with salt and pepper, and enjoy!

Kang Hunglay (Coconut Milk Red Curry with Pumpkin, Snow Peas, and Tofu)

Recipe By: Sascha Weiss, Nosh Magazine
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

1 1/2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
1/2 cup firm tofu, diced
6 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons red curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand)
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 cup pumpkin (or squash or sweet potato), cut in 1-inch squares
1 cup snow peas washed, steamed, and sliced in half on a diagonal
1 tablespoon tamari
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup coconut milk
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lime
15 leaves of Thai basil

1. Heat a large sauté pan or wok.
2. Add the oil, tofu, garlic, curry paste, and ginger. Cook, stirring, for 2–3 minutes or until the tofu begins to brown.
3. Add the pumpkin, snow peas, tamari, water, and coconut milk and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender. Season with salt, pepper, and lime juice to taste.
4. Divide among four plates, garnish with Thai basil and serve with steamed Jasmine rice.

Spicy Thai Noodles (Pad Thai)
I practically lived on this dish my first time in Thailand. It’s still one of my favorites.
Recipe By: LTB, adapted from
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 45 minutes

16 ounces rice stick (fettucine size)
1/4 cup soy sauce (tamari)
1 tablespoon unbleached sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons chili sauce (Asian hot kind)
3 tablespoons canola oil (or safflower)
1 small red pepper, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh grated galanga or ginger root
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 package tofu, any type, crumbled
1/2 pound bean sprouts (about 2 cups)
1 small tomato, cut into small wedge
1/4 cup salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
lime wedges for garnish (optional)

1. About 30 minutes before serving, prepare noodles (rice stick) per package directions, drain, and keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, in a cup, stir soy sauce, sugar, chili sauce, and 1/2 cup water; set aside. In a large skillet or wok over med-high heat, in hot oil, cook red pepper, ginger, garlic, and all but 1/4 cup chopped green onions until tender and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. 3. Push vegetables to one side of the skillet. To same skillet over med-high heat, add crumbled tofu, stirring until hot. Stir in bean sprouts and soy sauce mixture; over high heat, heat to boiling.
4. Add cooked noodles and tomato wedges, tossing to coat with sauce and heat through.
5. Spoon noodle mixture onto large warm platter. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts, chopped cilantro or parsley, crushed red pepper, and remaining chopped green onions. Garnish with lime wedges, if desired. Serve with additional chili sauce.
Notes: The tofu is added where eggs would usually fill in . Mori Nu silken tofu will have the most “egg-like” texture, but any tofu works just fine here. The amount isn’t critical, either, so just use what you have on hand, or leave it out entirely.

Thai Cucumber Salad
This is a simple dish with a cool, clean taste. You also have the option of spicing it up with a touch of hot chiles.

Recipe By: Molly Katzen
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 10 minutes

2 medium cucumbers
1/2 cup very finely minced red onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons unbleached sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1/2 cup finely minced red or green bell pepper (optional)
1 small red serrano chili pepper, cut into very thin strips (optional)
OR crushed red pepper to taste (optional)
cilantro (for garnish, optional)

1. Peel and seed the cucumbers. Cut into quarters lengthwise, then into thin slices.
2. Combine everything except the serrano chile and the cilantro sprigs in a medium-sized bowl. Mix gently. Cover tightly and let marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours.
3. Serve cold. Top with thin strips of red serrano chile and sprigs of fresh cilantro, if desired, shortly before serving.
Notes: If you decide to add the serrano chile, be very careful handling it, as it is very hot. Wear disposable gloves or wash your hands with soap and warm water immediately after contact to avoid severe irritation to your eyes and mouth.

Marinated cucumber salads improve with age, so I recommend that you make this a day or two ahead.